A Bethlehem Tradition Comes to America

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BEL AIR, Maryland -- Bethlehem. It's the town where Christ was born and Christianity once flourished.

Although things have changed there over the years, some Bethlehem Christians are once again making a difference.

They're spending Christmas in America--and they've brought along a Holy Land tradition that they hope can help fellow believers back home.

It's all about the olive tree.

The Bible says Jesus prayed under one in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the Old Testament, Noah brought a branch from one onto the ark.

Today, like in biblical times, the olive tree is viewed as a symbol of peace in a land that has seen very little of it.

For Bethlehem's struggling Christian community, these trees are also a source of income. For centuries, families like Michael's have used olive wood to make hand-carved gifts. Now, Michael is in the U.S. introducing Americans to this one-of-a-kind artwork.

"Not too many tourists go there to buy this, so we bring this stuff here to sell it for them," he said.

Bethlehem's once thriving tourism industry has suffered in recent years due to violence in the Palestinian territories. It's Muslim community is growing, while it's Christian population has dropped from 60 percent to under 20 percent since 1990.

"Many of them go to different lands looking for work, business -- because in Bethlehem it is a hard and bad life now," Michael told CBN News.

Some, like Michael, have come to America. The olive wood gifts he sells at Harford Mall in Bel Air, Maryland help raise money for Bethlehem's Christians.

There are only 300 families left in Bethlehem who still make hand-carved items. It's an ancient Christian tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation. The items they make include the Last Supper, crucifixes, Nativity scenes -- all hand carved from olive trees, straight from the Holy Land. Christmas is the only time of year you will find them in America.

Each item also contains an added memento.  The crucifixes contain incense from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and stones from Jerusalem.

Michael says sales have been down this year to the economic crisis - but he's staying optimistic.

"We hope the American people help their brother and sister Christians in Bethlehem," he said.

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Erick Stakelbeck.

Erick Stakelbeck.

CBN News

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